Questions with only one right answer

You’re in country X.  Let’s say that the local language is called Xish.  Here are the only correct answers to the following questions:

Q: So, what do you think about Xish?  A: It’s beautiful.
Q: Xish is really easy to speak, isn’t it? A: No.
Q: Do you think that Xish is hard?  A: Yes.
 Q: What’s more difficult–English, or Xish?  A: Xish.
 Comment: You speak Xish wonderfully!  Response: Oh, no, I speak Xish terribly.

In some technical sense, your answer to all of these will have been been false, except for the one about speaking Xish poorly.  “Difficulty” is not a meaningful word when applied to languages.  Neither is “beauty” in a technical sense, although I won’t belabor that one.

It occurred to me as I wrote this that the picture that I’ve painted here could be interpreted as suggesting that people who speak any language other than the one that you speak are easily fooled. In fact, that’s not the case at all.  This is about shared human culture–as far as I know, most people in most places love to talk about their language with foreigners, and how hard that language is will pretty much always be a good conversational tack to take.  (Obviously, I haven’t been everywhere or talked to everyone, but I’ve probably done this little exercise in somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 countries by now.)  In fact, in a lot of places, the Your Xish is great! thing is a sophisticated opportunity to let you show your grasp of the culture (or not)–in many cultures, accepting a compliment is quite gauche, and the only proper response is self-deprecation.  Respond with “oh, thank you–I’ve really been working on it!”…and you’ve just shown yourself to still be clueless.  Respond appropriately and you’ve just shown your grasp of, and respect for, the culture.

Ironically, I can’t quite figure out whether or not that’s the case in France–in general, this is not a country where self-deprecation is valued.  It’s a real problem for Americans, since self-deprecation is more or less our default attitude any time that we meet someone new, and often for much, much longer than that.  You could think of this whole isn’t-my-language-hard thing as an instance of not “exoticizing the Other,” as we academics like to say, but rather, of exoticizing oneself–of supporting a sort of exceptionalism for one’s own language, in the sense that we talk about “American exceptionalism” (the idea that America is just plain better than the rest of the world and has something to offer it–I certainly agree with the second part of that) and “French exceptionalism” (the idea that France is just plain better than the rest of the world and has something to offer it–I certainly agree with the second part of that, too).


English notes

gauche-james-dean-quote-i-m-a-serious-minded-and-intense-little-devil-terribly-gauche-and-so-tense-that-i-don-james-dean-63-50-46
Picture source: http://www.azquotes.com/quote/635046

gauche: lacking social experience or grace; also :  not tactful :  crude  (taken directly from Merriam-Webster).  I think that the best French equivalent might be maladroit, but couldn’t swear to it.  How it was used in the post: In many cultures, accepting a compliment is quite gauche, and the only proper response is self-deprecation.  Some examples from the Open American National Corpus, a collection of 15 million words of American English, collected and annotated by my colleague Nancy Ide, that you can download to do with as you please.  I used the Sketch Engine web site to search it.

  • You are correct that you cannot come right out and say, “It is gauche to come over and serenade me with your potato chips , so please go away.”
  • Gauche, gauche, gauche, and tacky.  (I love this one even more than the previous one.) 
  • Your take on his behavior was correct: It was gauche. Prudie does have one slight bit of curiosity about the faux pas.

to take a tack: to go in a particular direction, metaphorically speaking.  It comes from nautical language, where the verb to tack means to change the direction of a ship by turning the bow into the wind.  Confusingly, it can mean something like tactic, but it is not related to that word at all.  How it was used in the post: Most people in most places love to talk about their language with foreigners, and how hard that language is will pretty much always be a good conversational tack to take.  Some examples from the Open American National Corpus (see above):

  • Britain’s Independent took a similar tack, observing, “The situation is far from precisely parallel, but it is still a chastening thought that the Kosovo Liberation Army is, under conditions of vastly greater duress, handing in its guns at a rather faster rate than the Provisional IRA seems able to arrange  “
  • But rather than pursue that obscure tack any further (place names such as Washington are surely both proper nouns and eponyms) , let us see if the proper categories of words really end there as grammar books tend to suggest .  (Different verb–pursue, rather than take–but, same meaning)
  • Having apparently grown tired of obsessing over just how skeletal the Ally McBeal Über-waif has become, the tabs take a different tack: They bare their fangs and become positively McCarthyesque in their zeal to rat out celebs who’ve become the least bit unsvelte.
  • I think it’s one of the tacks Gerald Posner took in his book JFK book, Case Closed.

French notes

gauche: according to WordReference.com, this adjective can mean awkward, clumsy, or gauche, but with this sense (meaning) it is soutenu.  

le langage soutenu or le registre soutenu: according to the French-language Wikipedia, this is especially a written form of the language, used in official letters and literary texts.

Dictionary porn

The only naked things in this post are my foot and a cat.

A surprise for you: linguists hate dictionaries.  There are attitudinal reasons for this: one gets tired of undergraduates going on about how they must surely be The Official Source For What Words Really Mean.  There are technical reasons for this: there’s an enormous amount of relevant information about words that dictionaries very rarely include–collocations (words that occur together more often than would be expected by chance–strong wind but heavy rain and stuff like that), argument structure (what kinds of things must occur with a word, e.g. to drink is transitive, except when it’s intransitive, in which case it means to drink alcohol specifically), crucial stuff like that.

More information on dictionaries:

Despite the fact that we’re not crazy about dictionaries, I would guess that most linguists probably deal with their distaste for them the same way that I do: I have a lot of them.  How many, I couldn’t really tell you.  In fact, I can’t even tell you how many English dictionaries I have.  Do I count the dictionary of lumberjack language?  How about my medical dictionaries (I have two)?  My biology dictionary?  My woefully-out-of-date dictionary of linguistics?

With all of that: which dictionary do I use?  Probably not a shocker to anyone who knows me: I have many monolingual general English dictionaries lying around my place, and there are some electronic ones that I use, as well.  Here are some of them, and when/why I use them:

This is my Macmillan Visual Dictionary.  As you might guess, it’s been in my life for a while; I find it humorous that despite being a visual dictionary, it has no picture on the cover anymore, since it has no cover…Visual dictionaries are super-useful for some things.  I used this one to do fieldwork.  Since visual dictionaries group things thematically, they’re great for taking a structured approach to learning vocabulary in a foreign language.  One of the more obscure recent additions to my dictionary collection is a bilingual French/Chinese visual dictionary–why not…
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This is my beloved Webster’s 3rd–picture of my foot included for scale.  When I was a young man, my father told me that if I ever saw one used, I must buy it.  As it turned out, this was my college graduation present to myself.  Based on the writing inside the front cover, I have reason to believe that it began its life as the property of the United States Navy: scrawled in heavy black marker are the words “Oil shack.”  On a naval vessel, the oil shack is the control center for routing fuel to the boiler rooms and for monitoring its purity, or at least that was the case back when US naval vessels still had boiler rooms.
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This is my beloved American Heritage College Dictionary.  (“College” dictionaries are usually what are called “desk dictionaries”–as far as I know, it’s mainly a description of size.  Picture of a cat included for scale.  Some things that I like about the American Heritage College, which I was introduced to by my second linguistics professor: for usage questions, they have a panel, and they give the statistics on the panel’s votes; in the back, there’s a dictionary of Indo-European roots; there are just enough pictures to be helpful without interrupting the flow of the whole thing.  (Yes, dictionaries can flow–or not.)
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Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary.  This one has a special purpose.  It was published in the early 1960s, and it’s my go-to dictionary for American literature from the first half of the 20th century.  You can find a review of it here.  (Of course people review dictionaries!)
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My beloved compact Oxford English Dictionary.  Books have been written about this one.  Books have been written about its first editor.  You might like Simon Winchester’s The professor and the madman: A tale of murder, madness, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Somebody clearly used mine as a resting place for paint cans.
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Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1959. Picture source: Rogers and Cowan talent agency. Downloaded from Wikimedia.

This being the 21st century, there are also some very good online monolingual English dictionaries, as well as a couple dictionary apps that I like a lot.  For the moment, I’ll just leave you with this Zsa Zsa Gabor quote:

The only way to learn a language properly, in fact, is to marry a man of that nationality. You get what they call in Europe a ‘sleeping dictionary.’ Of course, I have only been married five times, and I speak seven languages. I’m still trying to remember where I picked up the other two.  Source: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/dictionary.html

 

 

 

How socks changed me: lexical category and syntactic ambiguity

Usually you change your socks, but one day socks changed me.

I got my start on an education by going to college classes at night after work.  I was in the Navy at the time, and the evening classes in the Norfolk, Virginia-area universities were full of people looking to advance their careers, squids like me (squid is military slang for a sailor), and of course typical college students.  Waiting for class to start one evening, I listened to two of them discuss their distaste for dating sailors.  One of them shared her hint for avoiding doing so inadvertently: she identified them by their black socks.  Indeed, we were issued a kind of heavy, padded black sock that was great for supporting your feet inside the low boots that were part of the uniform at the time.  Your tiny little locker on a ship doesn’t allow you the room to have much in the way of clothes other than your uniform, so we wore them all the time, whether in uniform or in civvies.  I’m sure that I was wearing a pair at that very moment.


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Poem about knitting socks for soldiers. From a 1918 newspaper, original source unknown. My source: https://goo.gl/dUYUG7

In fact, socks are a crucial part of the military uniform.  In the First World War, they were crucial to the avoidance of trench foot, which could (and frequently did) lead to the loss of a foot, or a leg, or two of them.  They remained important in World War II–socks are crucial to your ability to march.  Today, nothing has changed but the sales platform–whether you’re standing on your feet for hours guarding jets on an air base in Alaska (my cousin did that–he’s in Hawaii now, which makes a hell of a lot of sense to me) or standing on your feet for hours in a military hospital shooting radiopaque dye into people’s coronary arteries (that was me), nothing about the technologization of the American military changes the fact that what’s on your feet is part of your equipment, just like anything else, and you need the best you can get.


The formidable Queen Mary led the movement to keep our troops warm during winter in the trenches, when Lord Kitchener asked her to undertake the huge task of providing 30,000 pairs of socks for our brave lads. Unfortunately with all the nice middle class ladies knitting away, many working class women lost out on a valuable revenue stream. After a meeting with the Queen it was suggested that ladies from the upper echelons might buy the wool and pay the lower classes to knit the socks, keeping everyone happy. —Juliet Bernard, HuffPost United Kingdom, https://goo.gl/ew4Z27

I spent my last few years in the Navy working in a large hospital.  Every fourth day, the people in my group spent 24 hours in the hospital–“on duty,” or “having the dutes,” as we called it.  You know how in the movies when someone’s heart stops, someone comes running down the hall with a big red cart and a defibrillator and shocks them until their heart (hopefully) restarts?  That was us.

That doesn’t actually happen very often, so we spent a lot of time sitting around reading.  This was before the Internet, smart phones, etc., so we brought piles of books, magazines, whatever.  I used to write long letters to my father.  On a typewriter–can you imagine?

One night I was sitting in the lab flipping through a National Geographic.  This was in the late 1980s–less than 10 years after the taking of the hostages at the American embassy in Iran, with the subsequent end of relations between the two countries (except, of course, for the illegal Iran-Contra affair, brought to you by the Reagan administration).  National Geographic is basically a collection of photographs from around the world, with a bit of accompanying text and occasionally a gorgeous map thrown in.  I found one of the photographs particularly interesting.  It was a close-up of an Iranian soldier’s socks, one of which was embroidered with the following words: Through Iraq to the Mediterranean–this was in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war.  The other was embroidered with the words Fill the sea with the blood of the Jews.  

Now, I’m Jewish, like my grandmother, and my sister, and my aunts, and my uncles, and my cousins, and…you get the idea.  So, when you talk about filling the sea with the blood of the Jews, I presume that you’re not going to leave my grandmother out of that particular adventure, or my sister, or my aunts, or…you get the picture.

As it happens, I am also a sharpshooter with the .45 caliber pistol (the handgun of the American military of those times).  I’m not a gun nut–in fact, I hate firearms.  But, when you’re in the military, one of the many things that you learn how to do is shoot people.  It’s fairly standard.

So I figured: fine, fuck you.  You know how to use your weapon, I know how to use mine–maybe one day we’ll meet in a “shooting war,” and then whoever’s the best shot gets to walk away.  I’ll take my chances with that.  And I turned the page…

…to find a picture of a farmer holding his adult son in his arms in the waiting room of a hospital in Tehran.  The kid was a soldier, and had been blinded in the war against Iraq.  The farmer was utterly uneducated, and had brought his son to the Big City to see if the doctors could take his eyes out of his head and transplant them into his son’s.

It was one of the biggest “light bulb moments” of my life.  I was a new father myself at the time, and I would have done anything for my baby, and the connection that I felt with that Iranian father was absolute, total, and complete.  It’s difficult for me to describe what that was like–a sudden awareness of a connection between my soul (and I say that as an atheist) and that of someone on the other side of the world who was quite possibly offended by my very existence (and that of my grandmother, and my sister, and my aunts, and…you get the picture.)  I knew something, immediately, in that moment: I was never going to be OK with killing anybody.  If you’re trying to kill my grandmother, or my sister, or–you know the list–sure, I will put a bullet in you, and thanks to your tax dollars and my fine Navy training, I know how to do it.  But, fine, fuck you?  Not after that moment.

I’m very sorry that I haven’t been able to find the picture of the soldier’s socks, nor the picture of the farmer with his blind son.  I spent a couple hours looking for them on line, with no luck.  If by some chance a reader of this post happens to be able to track them down…  English notes below.  

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I found this jewel of a review of a pair of socks on the THORLO web site. “Basic” is “basic training,” more commonly known as “boot camp”–your first training in the transition from civilian to soldier/sailor/whatever. Picture source: screen shot of https://goo.gl/Uk1IYN

English notes

shooting war: in opposition to the Cold War, which did not actually involve violence (overtly), a “shooting war” is the usual kind.  How it was used in the post: So I figured: fine, fuck you.  You know how to use your weapon, I know how to use mine–maybe one day we’ll meet in a “shooting war,” and then whoever’s the best shot gets to walk away.

light bulb moment: when you suddenly realize something.  The image is that the realization comes to you as suddenly as a light bulb turning on.  How it was used in the post: It was one of the biggest “light bulb moments” of my life.

dating sailors: this is an example of ambiguity on multiple levels.  Let me give you a parallel example with less uncommon lexical items–it probably comes from an old edition of Language Files, the Ohio State University linguistics department textbook:

  • Visiting relatives can be annoying.  (You have some relatives, and some of them visit you, and those relatives that visit you can be annoying to you.)
  • Visiting relatives can be annoying.  (You have some relatives, and when you visit them, doing it can be annoying to you.)

On one level, this is ambiguity related to the fact that visiting can belong to multiple lexical categories (what normal people, i.e. non-linguists, call parts of speech).

  • Visiting relatives can be annoying.  (You have some relatives, and some of them visit you, and those relatives that visit you can be annoying to you.)  In this case, visiting is an adjective, and it modifies relatives: it takes the universe of all possible relatives and restricts it to just those that visit.
  • Visiting relatives can be annoying.  (You have some relatives, and when you visit them, doing it can be annoying to you.)  In this case, visiting is a verb, and in particular, a non-finite one–that is, one that doesn’t have a tense, per se.

Going along with that ambiguity with respect to lexical category (part of speech) is a difference in syntactic structure, as well.  In the case where visiting is an adjective, the group of words visiting relatives is what’s called a noun phrase (le groupe nominal, I think), formed by an adjective and a noun.  From a syntactic point of view, this is a relatively simple structure.  (I said relatively–no hate mail from afficionadoes of deeply-embedded X-bar structures and the like, please.)  Scroll down a bit and you’ll find a picture of what this looks like.  In the case where visiting is a non-finite verb, I think that you need to posit something pretty complicated, along the line of a verb phrase within a dependent clause within a noun phrase.  

screenshot-2017-01-20-16-07-06
S is “sentence,” NP is “noun phrase,” and VP is “verb phrase.”  Picture source: screen shot from http://mshang.ca/syntree/. Try it out, it’s super-fun! I mean, for a syntactic tree generator… and if you like bracketing phrases… Certainly more fun than sitting here in my hotel room in the middle of the night thinking about the bullshit-filled speech that I just watched Trump give at his inauguration…

screenshot-2017-01-20-16-10-31
VP is “verb phrase.” The verb phrase forms a clause, and the clause has to be inside a “noun phrase” (NP), or else you have to posit that you don’t need to have nouns to have a subject, which you can do, but then you trade off the less-complex structure for a more-complex set of syntactic categories. You choose. Picture source: screen shot from http://mshang.ca/syntree/.

Want to try your hand at this?  Here are some examples.  (I think I found them on the Sketch Engine web site, but I started writing this post back on the day of Trump’s inauguration, and my memory is a bit hazy, mostly being masked by my horror at the event.)  Label each one as adjectival or verbal, and I’ll tell you what I think the answers are at the bottom of the page.

  1. In the morning our team of highly experienced instructors will kit you out with your riding gear and a Yamaha off road bike, and introduce you to the principles of off road riding.
  2. We all know training is the key to utilizing technology to its fullest extent and saves BIG money in the long run . 
  3. These color tiers provide a quick, visual means of comparing players at different positions with similar fantasy value.
  4. Walking distance to the centre, car parking spaces are a god-send, lovely comfortable beds and clean bathrooms and kitchen.
  5. There are various eating establishments in the village of Gairloch which is about 10 miles away.
  6. The upstairs rooms offer fantastic panoramic views over surrounding croftland to the Torridon Mountains to the east, and over the Minch to the Isle of Skye and Outer Hebrides to the west.
  7. Surveying developments in the medical sciences allows for the identification of those areas, which have particular relevance to cardiovascular disease.
  8. Making our research accessible to a wide range of audiences, and involving people from different sectors and backgrounds in the development of our work has always been one of our key aims.
  9. Her torturers constantly accused her of recruiting and training youths for banditry, and of working with the opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) in an alleged plot to topple Mugabe.
  10. My sources within the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) tell me that days before my piece appeared, the agency had submitted a report to Mugabe’s office specifically accusing both Zambia and Botswana of offering their lands as “ launching pads ” for a military attack.
  11. The increasing realization that their access to ancestral lands was diminishing encouraged many of the Indians to strike at the encroaching whites.
  12. The plan called for the converging columns to maintain a continuous offensive until a decisive defeat had been inflicted on the Indians.
  13. U.S. Army soldiers and Indian warriors engaged in running battles through rugged terrain such as this near Palo Duro Canyon during the Red River War.

This sequence of -ing + noun is very common in English.  It shows up at least three times in this post, once in a verbal construction, the other adjectival:

  • Waiting for class to start one evening, I listened to two of them discuss their distaste for dating sailors.  (Verb)
  • National Geographic is basically a collection of photographs from around the world, with a bit of accompanying text and occasionally a gorgeous map thrown in.  (Adjective)
  • You know how to use your weapon, I know how to use mine–maybe one day we’ll meet in a “shooting war,” and then whoever’s the best shot gets to walk away.  (Adjective)

You may have noted an attempt at humor in the title of this post: How socks changed me.  Usually we talk about changing one’s socks, which means to put on clean socks.  For socks to change a person is quite bizarre not just semantically, but in terms of the odd combination of the verb change and the noun socks that native speakers are quite accustomed to.

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Australian schoolchildren during WWI with a pile of socks they’ve knitted. 1918. Picture source: Australian War Memorial, public domain. https://goo.gl/dUYUG7

My best shot at the answers

  1. Adjective In the morning our team of highly experienced instructors will kit you out with your riding gear and a Yamaha off road bike, and introduce you to the principles of off road riding.
  2. Verb We all know training is the key to utilizing technology to its fullest extent and saves BIG money in the long run . 
  3. Verb These color tiers provide a quick, visual means of comparing players at different positions with similar fantasy value.
  4. Adjective Walking distance to the centre, car parking spaces are a god-send, lovely comfortable beds and clean bathrooms and kitchen.
  5. Adjective There are various eating establishments in the village of Gairloch which is about 10 miles away.
  6. Adjective The upstairs rooms offer fantastic panoramic views over surrounding croftland to the Torridon Mountains to the east, and over the Minch to the Isle of Skye and Outer Hebrides to the west.
  7. Verb Surveying developments in the medical sciences allows for the identification of those areas, which have particular relevance to cardiovascular disease.
  8. Verb Making our research accessible to a wide range of audiences, and involving people from different sectors and backgrounds in the development of our work has always been one of our key aims.
  9. V Her torturers constantly accused her of recruiting and training youths for banditry, and of working with the opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) in an alleged plot to topple Mugabe.
  10. Adjective My sources within the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) tell me that days before my piece appeared, the agency had submitted a report to Mugabe’s office specifically accusing both Zambia and Botswana of offering their lands as “ launching pads ” for a military attack.
  11. Adjective The increasing realization that their access to ancestral lands was diminishing encouraged many of the Indians to strike at the encroaching whites.
  12. Adjective The plan called for the converging columns to maintain a continuous offensive until a decisive defeat had been inflicted on the Indians.
  13. Adjective U.S. Army soldiers and Indian warriors engaged in running battles through rugged terrain such as this near Palo Duro Canyon during the Red River War.

The best monolingual French dictionary app: Dictionnaire français by Farlex

Despite what you might expect: linguists hate dictionaries. Here’s why.

Despite what you might expect: linguists hate dictionaries.  They’re the bane of our existence, really–these things that Linguistics 101 students appeal to in defense of the crap explanations of how language works that they learnt in some grade school “English” class.  Here’s a list of problems with dictionary definitions alone from a draft of a paper of mine:

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Some problems with definitions in dictionaries. Picture source: draft of a paper by me.

Dictionaries have more problems than just their definitions.  See here for a post on some of them.  It includes links to many other pieces on the topic, including an interview with the amazing Deborah Cameron.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t own and use them, though–a lot of them.  In fact, I have lots of different kinds of dictionaries.  One of the basic distinctions between kinds of dictionaries that you’re likely to be interested in if you’re reading a blog like this one is that between monolingual and bilingual dictionaries.

monolingual dictionary gives the meanings of words in some language by providing definitions in that language itself.  As Wikipedia puts it: The word dictionary (unqualified) is usually understood to refer to a general purpose monolingual dictionary.[4]

At some point in your study of a language, you need a monolingual dictionary of that language.  English-French/French-English dictionaries will get you a long way, and often they suffice, but sometimes you really do need a monolingual dictionary of whatever language it is that you’re interested in.  (Case in point: recently I was trying to figure out the distinctions between some words referring to light—chatoyer, scintiller, briller, stuff like that.  Finding the English translations didn’t really help, because some of those can be translated by the same words in English, and I couldn’t swear that I can completely differentiate between the words in English, either.  As a point of reference: English is my native language, and I scored in the top 1 percentile on the vocabulary portion of the GRE.  I had to go to a monolingual French dictionary to find out that chatoyer necessarily involves reflection, scintiller necessarily involves intermittence, etc.  With those aspects of the definitions in hand, I could go look at actual examples of usage, and see what kinds of things can be the subjects of those verbs–for example, scintiller is often used with stars or to describe the night sky.)


I’m a huge technoskeptic.  Not despite the fact that I work in technology, but because I work in technology, I never expect anything to work.  The smartphone, though–that’s something that was immediately obviously a good idea.  Indeed, my phone is the thing that makes my life of flying from continent to continent possible.  For example, when I went to France for the first time, I started packing my suitcase and immediately ran into a problem: 50% of my luggage was going to be taken up by books.  Smartphone to the rescue: with a Kindle app, I can buy new things to read as I need them.  Other apps let me download maps, manage my packing lists, write emails, etc.  One of them has also solved my problem of needing to have a monolingual French dictionary once in a while.  I tried six of them; the best was Dictionnaire français, by Farlex.  The review that I wrote for it sums up its plusses:

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I’ll give you some specifics now, focussing especially on aspects of the search functionality.  As I suggested in the review, one of the real strengths of this dictionary is the flexibility of its search options.  You can do a “simple” search (recherche simple): just type in the word that you’re looking for.

img_9821Often, though, you want to be able to look for words that fit some pattern. For example, you might want all words that start with some string of characters, or all words that end with some string of characters. The Farlex dictionary lets you do that with the Commence par (“starts with”) and Finit par (“ends with”) searches.

You might also want to be able to search for words with some particular pattern, irrespective of where that pattern is in the word. For example, I have a lot of trouble remembering how to pronounce ouille, so I wanted to find a bunch of examples of it. Farlex lets you do this with what it calls métacaractères. (Computational linguists call these wildcards.) To find words with any number of characters, followed by ouille, followed by any number of characters, I did this search, and got these results:

“Métacaractère” (wildcard) search for all words containing “ouille”.  Picture source: screen shot from my phone.

(In Farlex’s métacaractère “language,” the question mark (?) means “any single character,” and an asterisk (*) means “any number of characters.” To linguists and computer scientists, this kind of “language” is called a regular language, and these kinds of expressions are called regular expressions.  In a corpus linguistics class, I’ll typically spend about a week teaching them, as they are super-useful in language technology.)

One feature of the Farlex app that I really appreciate is that it stores your recent searches.  It’s not uncommon for me to look up a word, forget what it meant, and then need to look it up again.  The fact that recent searches are saved lets me go back to those words without having to type them again.  Also, if I want to review recent vocabulary items that I’ve learnt, I can just go back to this list.

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Another nice feature of the app is that it aggregates definitions from multiple sources.  These range from a very recent Larousse to dictionaries going back to the 1700s.  In fact, lying about my house I have dictionaries of English from a variety of time periods, ranging from a very recent American Heritage (good for usage statistics) to a mid-20th-century Webster’s (very useful when reading American literature from the first half of the 20th century) to an Oxford English Dictionary that I mostly use for Shakespeare (it has all known definitions of a word, ever, going back to the earliest ones observed).  I like to read Molière in French, so sometimes the definitions from the old Littré are exactly what I need. Here are some of the multiple definitions of appétence, a word that I ran into this morning.

So: if you’re looking for a monolingual French dictionary that can live comfortably on your phone, this is probably your baby.  Let’s face it–if you’ve lived in Paris for any amount of time and you don’t have a hell of a lot more money than I do, you’re used to living in tiny spaces….


Conflict of interest statement: I don’t have any conflicts of interest here.  Farlex doesn’t pay me to write stuff like this–in fact, after I took the screen shots for this post, I paid them for the ad-free version of the app.  This is the case with everything that I review on this blog.

The question your grand-kids are going to ask you

We’re going to get past this–America always does. And someday, your grand-kids are going to ask you: what did you do during the Trump administration?

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The Croix de Lorraine, symbol of the French Resistance during World War II. Picture source: https://goo.gl/lChOU1
I went to a “language exchange” the other night.  7 minutes in one language, 7 minutes in the other, and then you change to someone new.  It works out well–you speak with a pretty random cross-section of people, you get to try your hand at understanding lots of dialects, ages, and speech rates, and usually you learn something.  Hopefully they do, too.

With one of my conversation partners, we started in English.  “Since we’re speaking English, I’m going to ask you all of the questions that an American would ask you, but a French person wouldn’t–where you’re from, what your job is…”

“Actually, French people ask each other those kinds of questions when they meet, too,” he replied.  ” What we don’t ask each other about is families–you don’t talk about family with someone you don’t know well.”


Indeed, the French are, in general, far slower to talk about family than Americans are.  And there’s one question that, I think more than any other, you don’t ask a French person: what did your family do during the war?  If they want you to know, they’ll tell you.  Uncle Jean-Paul was a fighter in the Resistance?  It’ll get worked into the conversation. Mom got arrested by the Gestapo while she was pregnant with your big sister?  It’ll come up without you asking.  (I’ll tell you mine: one of my uncles was in the Resistance.  According to another uncle’s autobiography, he was executed by the Germans, along with a bunch of his buddies.  The uncle who survived to write an autobiography was in the Army, apparently mostly spending his time driving trucks and teaching boxing to the son of an Army officer who thought his kid was a bit effeminate and wanted him toughened up a bit.)  Otherwise: don’t ask.  Plenty of French resisted the Nazis, and plenty of those, like my uncle, paid with their lives.  Others collaborated–the reason that the French government is not allowed to collect most demographic information today is that when the Germans told the Parisian police to go round up the Jews, they had no trouble finding them, because everyone’s religion was recorded in the local records.  (Altogether, French people sent around 70,000 French Jewish fellow citizens to the death camps.  (Wikipedia says 78,853.)  Under 1,000 came back.)  Most people just ate Jerusalem artichokes and rutabaga (cattle fodder otherwise) and tried to stay alive.


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French Resistance message: “To obey is to betray. To disobey is to serve.” Picture source: https://goo.gl/a5Ep9Y
The reason I bring this up: America is in a world of shit right now.  But, we’re not going to be in this particular world of shit forever.  The hallucinatory world that Trump has brought us will end–eventually, America always rights itself.  As a nation, we’ve overcome slavery, overcome institutionalized racism, overcome extermination of Native Americans and then of their languages, overcome prejudice against Jews, prejudice against Catholics, and prejudice against Mormons.  Some day we’re going to get past the band of sociopaths who are currently running our government, we’re going to get past their reprehensible and un-American anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican prejudices, and we’re going to become a moral and exceptional country again.

So, if you’re an American: someday your kids and your grand-kids are going to have questions.  We’re not French, and we do ask about family.  Your grand-kids are going to want to know what Grandma and Grandpa did during the Trump administration.  Did you speak up?  Did you collaborate?  Did you just try to get along and let the refugees, the religious and racial minorities, and the people losing their health insurance worry about themselves?  We’re not French–we do ask.  Your grand-kids will.  They’ll ask you.  


English notes

to be in a world of shit: to be in a very bad situation.  There are a number of shit-related expressions for describing the state of being in a bad situation–to be in deep shit, to be up shit creek without a paddle, and I imagine others that slip my mind at the moment.  How it was used in the post: America is in a world of shit right now.  

French notes

la Résistance intérieure: the Resistance within France.  What we would call in English “the Resistance.”

la Résistance extérieure: the Free French forces operating out of London.

clandestin: clandestine, underground, secret.

la presse clandestine: the underground press.  Putting out newspapers was a big move during the Nazi occupation–Germany took the press so seriously that in Germany the Nazi government killed intellectuals and writers who published underground anti-government writings.  It was a difficult one, too–it was illegal to sell paper, ink, or stencils.

Ad hominem

The older you get, the more you realize that your parents knew what they were talking about.  I’ve spent an entire education ignoring the existence of rhetoric, and specifically, “rhetoric” as in this definition from Merriam-Webster:

:  the art of speaking or writing effectively: such as

   a :  the study of principles and rules of composition formulated by critics of ancient times

I mean, I knew that there were all of these fancy names for rhetorical moves–but, who could be bothered to memorize them, and why bother?  Then I started studying for the C1 DALF exam, and realized that understanding discourse markers could be damn useful.  From there, it’s a short step to thinking in a more principled way about how to put an argument together, and from there…well, rhetoric and its “rhetorical figures” are just right around the corner.

There’s a point to studying rhetoric.  You can see it in Wikipedia’s definition of the term:

Rhetoric is the art of discourse, wherein a writer or speaker strives to inform, persuade or motivate particular audiences in specific situations.

'Don't worry too much about math, science, or history -- just make sure you get good marks in rhetoric.'
Picture source: https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/r/rhetoric.asp

The key words: inform, persuade or motivate.  At this, Trump is, unfortunately, a master: he persuades the hell out of people.  (We’ll get back to which people in a bit.)  Did he soak up a bunch of rhetoric courses at whatever college he did his draft-dodging in?  I don’t know–but, you can see lots of fancy–and some not-so-fancy–rhetorical techniques in his communication.  For example: the ad hominem argument.  As Wikipedia defines it:

Ad hominem (Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”[1]), short for argumentum ad hominem, is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.[2]Wikipedia

For example:

Does Trump respond to the content of what Sen. McCain said?  No–not at all.  What he does: he attacks the person who communicated the content.

Does this work?  Well: he’s the president of the United States of America.  Did he get the most votes?  No–but, he’s still the president.

A different question: on who does this kind of crap argument work?  And it is a crap argument: an example of a fallacy.  You could argue that it works on people who are too stupid to catch the move.  In this particular case, I’m guessing that you would be correct.  Back to the definition of rhetoric again: discourse that is used to inform, persuade or motivate particular audiences in specific situations.  You could take the position that the “particular audience” at whom he aims this crap is mostly made up of people who either (a) don’t begin to understand the implications of what the guy is pushing, or (b) do, but are deluded enough to think that burning the world down would be a cool way to start over.  You could take the position that the “specific situation” is a shared delusion, a sort of mass hysteria.  But, that clearly isn’t the only time when ad hominem arguments get taken seriously: there is a version of this that is common on the left, as well.  (Just to be clear: I am on the left.)  In that version, you don’t even bother to claim that the content is flawed because the person is flawed: you argue that the content shouldn’t be listened to, because the person is flawed–irrespective of whether or not it’s relevant in any way, shape, or form, to anything about the person whatsoever.  Again, to be clear: just because people on my side of the aisle do it doesn’t make it right.  Doesn’t make it valid.  Doesn’t make Trump any less of an asshole, and doesn’t make the majority of the people who voted for him any less deluded.


I’ll close with an observation about France versus the US: as far as I can tell, ad hominem arguments work a hell of a lot less well in France than they do in my country of origin.  Is it because the French are (as far as I can tell) generally less into emotion and more into logic than Americans are, and vice versa?  Is it because French students are required to take philosophy in college, and we’re not?  I don’t know.  I do know that in France, your art will not be boycotted if you happen to be, say, a recidivist thief (Jean Genet), a rapist (Roman Polanski), or a horribly vicious Nazi collaborator (Louis-Ferdinand Céline).  (This isn’t an absolute.  On the 50th anniversary of his death, Céline was to be included in the list of people included in the Célébrations nationales.  Mitterand nixed his inclusion.  As Le Figaro put it: Une vive polémique s’est ensuivie.)  In contrast: in America, if you’re an asshole, your art will, in fact, probably be boycotted.  The point of all this: as far as I can tell, the French are not nearly as susceptible to the ad hominem argument as the Americans.  Yes, I’m generalizing, and no, nobody fits their stereotypes, and no, I am an expert neither on America, nor on France.  Nonetheless…  You can certainly give counter-examples, and plenty of them–but, as a general rule, this holds.


French notes

la rhétorique: rhetoric.

 

 

Linguists: boring? Incomprehensible? Evil?

Common wisdom—an oxymoron if ever there was one—has it that linguistics and linguists themselves have a bit of a reputation problem. Are linguists boring? Incomprehensible? Pointless? Evil?  The contention of this paper is—given that perception is nine-tenths of reality—unless we ask, we’ll never know.  — The Speculative Grammarian

 

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Picture source: http://frabz.com/60c2

Follow this link to read the source of the preceding quote.  Bonus points for understanding the mean-of-means joke.  Even more bonus points for explaining it in the Comments.

How linguistics got her groove back